Brendan Duke: My ghosts from Cheltenhams past

With the Greatest Show on Turf around a week away, our man has looked back at his memorable moments (good and bad) from the festival of festivals…


The weather robbed us of any meaningful action last weekend. As a consequence, this week’s tale will be devoted to my Cheltenham punting memories.

Hopefully you will get something out of it and the after-timing doesn’t grate. Like everyone I have suffered plenty of bad beats through the years, but I’m in disagreement with general psychiatric wisdom on denial.

Consigning the losers to history and remembering the good times puts me in a much happier place going forward. There is one traumatic event I still struggle with, but more of that later.

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‘The good guys always get out’ is a gambling maxim used by the deluded like me.

JP McManus’ mantra about there being no last race is far wiser. However, like a stopped clock the good guys will be right occasionally. One such occasion occurred on my first trip to the festival.

Not long out of school, I visited a friend at university in England. He and I both believed my pre-meeting spiel about this being an easy game. Only for our faith to be sorely tested by results over the three days.

There can be only one thing for it I said, literally in this case as we were down to the County Hurdle.

Then, as now, a fiendishly difficult puzzle. With the undimmed arrogance of youth I decided that Star Rage would win.

My amigo mumbled something about student loans followed by something that sounded like f**k it. We secured 16/1 and wearily walked to the stands one last time. A miracle came to pass. The horse won comfortably and while we didn’t win much for the week, having flirted with penury, walked out of the place like rich men.

A couple of years passed until my next trip to the meeting. I really shouldn’t have been there at all. The previous November, on a whim, I decided to take a year abroad in Australia.

This was going to be a great adventure. Far flung places like Fiji and East of Java were mentioned.

Like a lot of whimsical decisions, it turned out to be a mistake. My advice to any readers intent on global conquest would be to do it gradually.

The first solo trip abroad should be somewhere relatively close. The Channel Islands spring to mind, Continental Europe at a stretch. Emboldened by that experience a young man’s gaze might turn to the new world.

If America proves agreeable then a trip to the other side of the world should be fine. Anyway, my first away mission proved too much and I succumbed to homesickness.

Deciding to leave I booked my ticket home, via Birmingham. As luck would have it one of my favourite horses was about to enjoy his coronation and I didn’t want to miss it. Florida Pearl had done me a couple of good turns at the previous two festivals.

The Gold Cup looked a formality. Alas my Antipodean adventure hadn’t taught me the perils of underestimating distance. The merciless last 2 and 1/2 furlongs proved too much for my hero. Many valuable lessons learned that March.

The one that got away was If In Doubt in the Pertemps Hurdle a couple of years ago. A talented beast, he had reverted to hurdles that season after doing a mean bulldozer impression over fences.

Put away after a qualifying win in Wincanton over Christmas he was my bet of the meeting. An ante post wager coupled with an on the day press up meant a return of over 5,000 if he won. Which he would have, but for suffering a series of violations after turning for home.

A desperately unlucky third meant the scant consolation of a modest place return. Should probably let it go at this stage, I had hoped writing about it would help. It hasn’t!

Full of optimism for next week, I finish with the tale of my best Cheltenham score. Indeed, my biggest win anywhere.

The year was 2011. Every day of the meeting I chance a speculative e/w perm. The extra places offered by bookies make this an attractive wager. After First Lieutenant and Sizing Europe went in things were getting a little exciting.

The Coral Cup would decide whether they got really spicy. With four horses running for me hopes were high. Sadly, as they turned for home three of them had adopted a serene, Buddhist approach to the race.

One hope remained, Carlito Brigante travelled as well as anything. He hit the front approaching the last and bounded up the hill for a convincing win.

The last leg was the bumper. Deja Vu all over again with my four hopes now down to a solitary runner.

That horse, Cheltenian, was moving with menace. This is the kind of sweat all punters live for. The jockey shook the reins over a furlong out.

There were a couple of strides when I worried this inexperienced horse might not find much. Cheltenian, the little beauty, cocked his ears at my fears before routing the opposition.

Over 15,000 was satcheled. Have probably given a fair portion of it back since, but no need to dwell on that.

That particular seven-year itch will be scratched when I get another one up next week.

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